Wednesday, June 14, 2006

 

Profile: Vets Again

(Another in a continuing series of profiles of National Guard soldiers who deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. For a background on these profiles, and why I write them, go read An Introduction to Dadmanly's Profiles)

Three of our soldiers served in Vietnam, and were part of our National Guard unit when we were mobilized for deployment to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). While I’ve written about these soldiers before, I have been negligent in not including them in my Profiles series.

These three soldiers couldn’t be more different, their temperaments, personalities, ways of thinking, habits or idiosyncrasies. They have known each other for years, serving together in what was originally a Military Police (MP) Company, but otherwise, while they were friendly enough, they didn’t socialize.

You might expect that service in Vietnam formed a unifying event, a common experience, but you’d never know it. It was rarely part of casual conversations, not with them, and they rarely mentioned their time in Vietnam. Each of them processed their time in Vietnam differently. I think what they each did with that experience made them who they are today. Usually, we benefited, though not always. Though at the times we suffered for it, we probably deserved the abuse, one way or the other.

New York State didn’t have a Military Intelligence (MI) Battalion (BN) until only recently. When the BN was formed, they offered military occupational specialty (MOS) reclassification in Intelligence fields to any interested MP soldiers who could qualify, ASVAB test score wise (the tests the Army uses to determine suitability for various job skills). Our MP Sergeant, for instance, was able to retrain as an Electronic Warfare (EW) Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Analyst, MOS 98C. That’s in fact how I first met Harry, I was his trainer at the school for his 98C Class.

When most of us think about our former MP now Intel Sergeant, we think of some confrontation or another, often many of us who afterward fondly remember such encounters. “What part of stupid don’t you understand,” or his ability to remain stone faced and grim, except on those rarest of circumstances when he was among his few close friends. I am lucky to be among them. For the rest, “they can go to h***. They’re dirtbags anyway.”

“That’s COL Dirtbag.”

“Like I said. What are they gonna do, send me to Iraq?”

Harry and I have worked together now for years. About as long as the MI BN lasted, which is nine years. When he was my student, Harry had just recovered from a stroke. He’d had to relearn how to speak and walk, the whole nine yards. He seemed awfully calm to me, even when I knew him to be angry. He once told me something along the lines of, “What, I’m going to let some dirtbag kill me by getting me angry? He wouldn’t be worth it.”

He didn’t have much trouble learning the MOS, which is not at all easy, except for the simple act of sitting still for a couple of hours at a time. Taking his final exam for the MOS, I remember him taking a smoke break, and debating whether he wanted to spend even another 15 minutes working the last problem on the test.

(That’s another thing Harry can do, he can smoke a cigarette before or after running two miles without effort; heck, I think he can smoke while running the two miles.)

I almost had to convince him to finish it up, which he did, and passed. I think he was a big inspiration to the other MPs who were reclassifying, all but one made it too, and that one who didn’t quit out of the Guard, entirely.

He used to make his civilian living as a furniture finisher and restorer. I have a dear friend in Georgia, Bunk, a deadpan, lanky country boy who used to make the funniest joke whenever asked for the first time what he did for a living. “I’m a stripper,” he would say, with the rural Georgia vocal habit of accenting the second syllable by lifting it up. (It also retains the lilt of one of George Clooney’s on-screen daughters in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, when she says, “he’s a suitor.”) In answer to the shocked stares from the uninitiated, he’d follow-up with, “I strip furniture.”

If I ever mentioned that joke to Harry – and I don’t think I would have dared – I’d get one of his patented, stone faced glares that would say better than words, “what’s your problem?” Now that I think of it, that’s what Harry said most often, after the line about being sent to Iraq.

After he got his 98C and was promoted to Master Sergeant (MSG), Harry had an opportunity to go on fulltime orders as an NT Administrator at an MI secure compartmentalized intelligence facility (SCIF). He ended up running Intel missions for his customer, eventually running such missions, coordinating resources and work assignments for half a dozen guard units all over the country, ours included.

We would see him once on month, when we were doing our missions at the site. Harry always seemed genuinely glad to see us. I don’t think he had much social contact in the month between our visits. He lived in a Bachelor Officer Quarters (BOQ) within a nearly empty reserve enclave, in which he had an entire barracks type building to himself. We’d visit, there he’d be in a small concrete room, very sparely furnished.

He never really told us how that was for him, but I think of him sitting there, quietly staring at those concrete walls. I think it was his way of keeping things simple.

In Iraq, Harry actually continued oversight of his missions in addition to his S-3 duties. Our officers pretty much left him alone. I think they were afraid of getting him angry. It wasn’t as if he yelled, or even raised his voice. Call it the respect due his rank and service, or his prior combat vet status from Vietnam. Or maybe it was his ability to make anybody feel pretty stupid in a few short sentences. Or his glares. Whatever, everyone from the Battalion Commander (BC), the Command Sergeant Major (CSM), and certainly the rest of the staff gave him a wide berth, and let him do things his way.

Harry was the first person telling us we’d be going to Iraq. He told us a year out, before anybody was saying so, certainly way before anything was decided, that we’d be activated. It wasn’t that Harry knew something that was knowable, just not announced. He just knew. He would say, “what choice do they have, the Army’s tapped out,” but those were just words, that’s not really why he thought we were going.

I think he figured, he survived Vietnam, a crazed first marriage to some wild Turkish woman, his stroke, of course he’s get sent to Iraq, as a National Guardsman.

Of course, now he says the same thing about Iran. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Harry ended up taking a position in Washington upon our return, and now runs the Agency section to which he had been reporting. While still in the Guard. He’s that valuable to them, they made it happen, by whatever way those things are done. (Maybe nobody wanted to tell him it wasn’t possible, so they said “yes.”)

---

Some soldiers were able to fill non-Intelligence billets. We had both small mess and communications sections, which allowed our other two Vietnam Vets to take positions in the MI BN.

Our Senior Cook, also Harry, always had a story to tell. He’d recount some humorous escapade of his, an alcohol-enhanced story, or some aspect of unit social life. He was our Club representative. He organized all the promotion and retirement parties at the Armory. (For those not familiar, many of the Armories in our state have “Clubs.” That means very cheap alcohol, food and facilities for parties, and some associated behavior problems, occasionally, but designated drivers, no drinking and driving, etc. But I digress.)

Harry always had a story to tell, always had some peeve to talk over. I didn’t used to know that, until we spent all that good quality time in Iraq. Harry was supposed to be Senior Cook for the Dining Facility (DFAC) when we took over at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Danger, but he found a special way to recreate his “Hospitality” related special duty assignment in Iraq: he offered to run the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) Operation for the Division. Until they started asking him to generate management and customer service type reports on a computer, when he abruptly quit that job to return to the DFAC.

“That was a perfect job for you! Like running the club back home, taking care of soldiers. Why’d you give it up?”

And off he went, with a seemingly endless list of ways that the MWR “just wasn’t taking care of soldiers.” I know he didn’t mean “they don’t serve alcohol,” because they don’t anywhere in US Military facilities in Iraq, not officially. (And darned little unofficially, if the absence of any incidents at FOB Danger were any indication.)

KBR contractors do all the cooking and cleaning and mess operations under Army Cook supervision for most DFACs in Iraq. That meant our cooks had little to do except watch the KBR contractors (and subcontractors) do what had always been their jobs. And Harry was never shy about telling you how much money and resources that wasted. “Portion control? Forget about it!” (For more details on DFAC operations, cooks and contractors, see my earlier profile Cooks & Contractors.)

One of the things we all remember from our Mobilization was when our Retention NCO did some research and managed to get Harry the correct combat patch for his unit in Vietnam. He hadn’t expected it at all. Harry had served in a Service and Support Company for a parent unit, MACV, nobody remembers what it stood for. Okie found what the parent unit insignia looked like, sent it off for a combat patch (opposite orientation) to be created.

Harry liked having that patch.

Harry kept a running battle up with the CSM about his hair. You’d think a man of his age, with the years of service he had in, would have made peace with military standards for haircuts, but you’d be wrong. It was his thing. The CSM’s thing was to make sure Harry got his hair cut short enough that there was NO WAY anyone could call him on it. This set up several classic confrontations, beginning at the Mobilization site and continuing through our entire tour.

Harry wasn’t going to give up without a fight. He once took scissors to his own hair. (That’ll show ‘em.) I remember him turning down a 4 day pass to Qatar because we had just asked him (again) to cut his hair. We used to joke that, if we got him really mad, he’d show us and turn down his 15 days of R&R back home, just for spite.

When we got home, Harry retired. I think the CSM would have preferred he’d done that before we went, but I knew that was the reason Harry turned down several opportunities to take a medical refrad and avoid deployment. He wouldn’t give the CSM the satisfaction.

Now? Harry is well on his way to looking like the inner Hippie. He says, if it gets just a little bit longer, he’s going to put it in a ponytail.

---

The third of our Vietnam Vets is a Commander. No, not the Company Commander as I profiled here, but the Commander of one of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Posts, who doubles as our Communications Master Sergeant.

MSG C didn’t make our deployment, not that he didn’t try. He had about three serious medical conditions, each of which I think should have prevented his deployment, but he resisted every step of the way. When our BC had us doing 6 mile road marches, with IBA and packs, MSG C was out there too. We were afraid the BC nearly killed him one day, and he ended up treated for a hernia to his navel. Apparently, as the BC was whipping a few lag behinds to “run and catch up,” MSG C had some kind of event where he nearly blew his belly button out the front of his gut. (At least that’s the way he describes it, anyway.)

I just about had to beg him to consider letting the medical screeners mark him as non-deployable. As it turned out, we might have saved his life, if only because he was able to get good medical attention he might not have otherwise received while we were on our way to Kuwait and on to Iraq.

Throughout our Mobilization, MSG C would come up to the Mob site on a moment’s notice. He knew our commo equipment completely, and the only other commo guy we had was a “Generation Z” film producer of Extreme Sports and Girls Gone Wild type videos. Pulled out of the Inactive Guard Reserve (the Guard equivalent of the IRR) at that. Who couldn’t even inventory the commo completely, let alone track or maintain it. He ended up in a Public Affairs Office (PAO) gig, despite the best efforts of our CSM to keep him under his thumb.

While we were gone, MSG C was our acting First Sergeant back home. He took care of things, he even stayed in contact about Commo equipment.

MSG C probably doesn’t know this, but he kept me from going crazy when it wasn’t anything near a sure thing that I could make it on this deployment. They say the First Sergeant can’t really have any friends in the ranks,  that the job can be lonely and thankless, and that’s for sure.

But I shared a room with MSG C for the first few months at the Mobilization site, when we were all trying to figure out how to whip these weekend warriors into a combat ready unit. There was a lot of uncertainty about how we’d do, even if we’d end up certified to go.

A lot of our Guard soldiers resisted the heavy training, the physical demands, the pace, the total lockdown of the first 6 weeks. Our BC and the CSM took a very demanding tack, went from crawl to sprint in a lot of ways (no crawl-walk-run for them), and there were lots of Inspector General (IG) complaints. Morale was very low, people were scared, nobody knew how bad it would really be, and there were all the usual personal issues. Separations. Financial problems. A few alcohol related incidents. Some fraternization.

MSG C never wavered from complete support for me. He kept encouraging me to “bust balls,” take hard stands, never flinch, let the soldiers know who’s boss. I didn’t always do as he advised, but if I ended up an effective leader at all, it’s in large measure because he was there, teaching, building me up, there to let me blow off steam in the evenings.

He made sure I got time to myself, he looked after my back, he kept me posted on the goings on not otherwise visible or evident.

When we came home, MSG C in his capacity as Post Commander had his Post underwrite $100 worth of the lifetime membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). He hosted a welcome party for the unit and families at the VFW.

MSG C served, and served admirably. Both in Vietnam, and in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). In the ways that mattered most.

Other Profiles in the Series:

The CO

The Motor Sergeant

The CSM

The NCOIC

The LT

Cooks & Contractors

Supply Sergeants

The Analysts

The Chaplain’s Assistant

The First Sergeant




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